n March 2002, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued an order clarifying his agency’s position on racial profiling, a practice that was common within the NYPD, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The order declared that the NYPD prohibits “the use of race, color, ethnicity or national origin as the determinate factor for initiating police action.”
It was a bold statement, but nothing really changed within the department after the order, says Darius Charney, an attorney on the legal team that is currently suing the city alleging racial profiling. So when Charney heard that last week Commissioner Kelly issued another order — this one telling his officers to follow state marijuana law when making arrests — he didn’t believe police would change.
“This is not the first time where the police commissioner has done something like this,” says Charney, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of three law firms litigating Floyd v. City of New York. It’s a publicity stunt, he says. “They might wave the order around and say look we have a good policy. What matters to us is what officers are doing on the street. It’s guaranteed that some officers are gonna keep doing it. The question is: ‘What’s gonna happen to them?’”
A week after WNYC broke the news of Commissioner Kelly’s order, New York City activists, lawyers and elected officials who have been fighting racial profiling within the NYPD are still taking stock of the announcement and trying to figure out whether it represents an opportunity for genuine change.
At issue is the police department’s interpretation and enforcement of the Marijuana Reform Act, a 1977 state law. According to that law, people caught carrying less than seven-eighths of an ounce of marijuana can be ticketed and fined, but they can only be arrested if, during a police encounter, the marijuana is in public view.
In the past, officers have skirted this law by reaching into civilians’ pockets, socks, and other personal effects to remove their hidden marijuana — or asking civilians to do so themselves — thereby placing the marijuana in public view, then initiating an arrest, advocates say. Kelly’s order prohibit this.
Sean Barry, the executive director of Vocal New York — a member of a coalition that has been spearheading efforts to modify law enforcement’s interpretation of state marijuana law — said he wasn’t aware that Kelly had issued orders related to racial profiling in the past, but is optimistic about this order.
“It seems real,” Barry says. When Kelly recently issued an order clarifying syringe possession law, police